Disclaimer: I don't own Yu-Gi-Oh! or any of its characters. Yu-Gi-Oh! is the property of Konami and Kazuki Takahashi.
Hello again, reader. Before you read the opening to this, my newest fanfic, I should explain a couple of things. First off, it's a bit of a rush job. The reason for this is that I'm off up to Scotland at the end of the week and I wanted to get something going while I still had time. Second, it was written while I'm still working on my other Yu-Gi-Oh! fanfic, 'Prehistory'.
Usually I don't like to write two stories at once, since it's liable to make them both intertwine and become all muddled in my easily baffled brain. But this was the kind of story that just demanded I write it before I forgot all about it and moved on to something else. I don't know whether that's a good thing or not, I just know I had to get it out of my system.
So anyway, without any further ado, try to enjoy this 'un.
Yugi sat up.
He didn't remember falling asleep, nor did he recall resting on the verge of the stream. His fingers scratched away the lethargy crawling in the corners of his eyes, and he squinted at his surroundings in an attempt to apprehend some semblance of memory. Nothing struck him as familiar – from the endless, rolling hills, to the ancient, towering trees; even the sky, peppered with myriad clouds, seemed foreign. Sound consisted of little more than the whisper of rushing water, while all other life remained still and serene.
It was nearly enough to frighten Yugi, for he had never before found himself in such a place. He had ventured from the world of light into that of shadows; he had been thrust into a vibrant virtual maze, not once but twice; on occasion, he had even voyaged into the realm of his own mind. But this was something else altogether – something that, at first sight, seemed to lack both the magic and the mystery of those places. What worried Yugi, as it would any other boy, was that he didn't know precisely where it was, or how he had gotten there – and most importantly, he had no earthly idea where any of his friends were.
"Joey? Téa?" he called out, his words piercing the quiet. He had almost expected to hear his own voice echo back in response, as if to provide assurance that he was indeed alone – but it was quickly drowned out by the sound of the stream. "Hello? Isn't there anybody…?"
He stopped, horrified. Something was wrong. Deeply wrong. He knew he hadn't fallen asleep here last night – but then, he didn't remember anything about last night. Closing his eyes, he tried desperately to come up with a rational explanation for his predicament. Perhaps he was dreaming? Yes, that would account for a fair share of it – except this seemed far too vivid for even the most lucid of dreams. He could feel the reassuring warmth of the sun on his face; he could feel the faint prickle of the wind as it tickled his earlobes; he could feel the dull pain when he bit anxiously into his lower lip. This was no dream. He was really here.
Feverishly, he got to his feet in an attempt to rouse his spirits. After all, there had to be somebody around here that was willing to help, or even tell him how he ended up in such a place; Yugi couldn't afford to believe otherwise. He would follow the stream as far as he could, all the while searching for signs of civilization. It was as good a plan as any, he supposed.
Again, he paused. Something definitely felt different. It was like something was missing, as though his balance had been thrown off somehow.
Yugi hadn't noticed at first, but now that he was upright he could feel the soggy earth seeping through the sock on his right foot – his shoe was missing. Now he was even more bewildered than before. Why would he have taken it off? Did he lose it? Had someone stolen it?
"Oh, come on," he muttered, chiding himself jovially. "Why would someone steal a shoe? It's hardly the most valuable thing I have. And if they wanted it so bad, why not take both of them? Of all the dumb…"
He gasped. Throughout that last train of thought, he had been absent-mindedly stroking the one possession of his that would be worth stealing – his Millennium Puzzle. It was then that he understood why he felt so very disturbed – so alone and afraid.
Spirit! he cried out hopelessly inside his head. Spirit, are you there? Please answer me!
Yugi's heart sank. There was no response.
How could this be? They were meant to be inseparable as long as he had the Puzzle. Frantically, he pressed his hands to either side of the golden pyramid, embracing it as best he could. He called out to his partner again and again, willing him to respond as he had done so instinctively a million times before. No answer came. This could only mean one thing – the spirit had left him, as had all the others. Yugi froze in place, cupping the empty shell of the Puzzle to his chest, utterly oblivious to the stream and the trees and the sky above, and the multitude of questions that had been buzzing about his head. He began to cry.
"You can't all be gone!" he shouted, his voice weak and indistinct. "You can't be! I'll find you… I'll find you, guys!" He took a step, faltered, and fell onto one knee – unable to find the strength to continue. He had lost so much in the space of but a few minutes. First his bearings, then his friends, then his partner – the spirit of the Puzzle. The only thing left to tear away was his soul. "Spirit! Where are you…? I need you! I need… I… I…"
So this was what it was like to truly be alone.
A long time ago, he had thought himself alone. He had no real friends at school, nobody to talk to or to play with. At times it had seemed as though he were invisible, like the rest of the world couldn't even be bothered to notice him. He could remember walking home all by himself, glad that he would at least get to see his grandpa upon his return. But as much as he loved his grandpa, a relative was by no means a replacement for a friend. So he had made a wish that he would find a friend – a rare, one-of-a-kind buddy who would stick by him throughout all the hardships and the grief life had to offer. Appropriately, he made the wish on the Millennium Puzzle, which had seemed as rare and one-of-a-kind as the friend he imagined he would most like to meet. And it came true – against all odds, the wish came true. Joey, Téa, Tristan – their friendship had been the stuff dreams were made of. Best of all, he'd met the spirit of the Puzzle, who had come with the guarantee that he would never again have to worry about being alone.
Yugi hunched forward, still cradling the Puzzle protectively in his arms. If only he understood what was happening, then perhaps he could accept it – maybe even try to overcome it. But he didn't. He couldn't. He had been brought here against both his comprehension and his will; he would never have given up his friends voluntarily, so it stood to reason that he must have been led here by some evil, corruptive force. It was the only explanation he was willing to accept. But who, or what, was responsible?
"I swear," Yugi spoke through clenched teeth, "On my Puzzle… That I will not rest until I find my friends again! Do you hear me? Do you?" He cried out to the world, knowing deep down that he was only talking to himself. Regardless, he struggled to his feet and set off down the path he had chosen, following the bank of the stream.
It felt like days had passed before he finally sat down to catch his breath, although in reality it had only been a matter of hours. The environment was playing tricks on his mind; at times it seemed like he was making no progress whatsoever, and every so often it felt as though he was actually walking backwards. It was like one of those nightmares where he would find himself being stalked by creatures from right out of his Duel Monsters deck. He would try to run, only for the stable ground beneath his feet to become like so much quicksand, allowing his pursuers to draw upon him just moments before his eyes would open and he'd find himself lying in bed, his heartbeat still racing.
"And you'd comfort me," he spoke softly, placing a hand on the Puzzle around his neck. "As I'm sure you would comfort me now… If you were here, that is."
But you're not, he added silently.
They had grown so close, Yugi felt, that a life without the other would have been simply unimaginable. They were like brothers – closer, even. The spirit had meant everything to him; he'd been a friend, a protector, a shoulder to cry on, a kind voice when all else was callous and cruel. At the end of the day, Yugi hoped he'd been able to make it up to the spirit. Whenever they got in a fix, he would do his best to show fortitude and offer a helping hand when his partner needed it, for there were times when even an ancient pharaoh needed support. They had learned a lot from one another – about Duel Monsters, life, and the importance of friendship. A bond like that couldn't possibly have just vanished into thin air.
"I don't know if you can hear me," Yugi whispered, holding up the Puzzle; itsglossy surface was cold to the touch. "But I promise I'll find you again. I mean, we never even got to duel each other, right?" He allowed himself a smile. "And believe me, I'm not gonna go down without a fight."
He placed the Puzzle in his lap and stared out across the stream; under any other circumstances, he mused, this would've made a beautiful place to stop and rest – maybe even have a picnic. He closed his eyes and imagined the gang all seated in the shade of a tree on the opposite side of the river; Joey and Tristan were having a food fight while Téa and Bakura looked on in earnest, hoping against hope that they wouldn't get caught in the fray. Serenity was with them, and Mai, and Duke, and Grandpa too – they all seemed so happy. Yugi felt his heart skip a beat as they all turned toward him, their faces lighting up like beacons. One by one they beckoned him to cross the stream and join them on the other side, and Yugi was about to do just that, when he felt his stomach tighten reluctantly. He couldn't just dwell in fantasy when his friends might be in real danger – he had to find them, and fast.
Scrambling to his feet, he was about to set off once more when suddenly he spotted something hidden in the reeds on the river's edge. He walked toward the bank, numb with excitement – hopeful that whatever it was would, if not give him some form of clue as to his whereabouts, at least break the monotony of his trek. He held his breath as he parted the tall green stems, the sound of rushing water seeming to reverberate within his head, and then at last he saw it.
Yugi reached down and picked it up, regarding it with perplexity at first. What would possess somebody to take someone's shoe, walk away with it, and then drop it in amongst some reeds? It didn't make any sense – which, of course, meant that it fit right alongside the rest of the day's events. He peered into it; seeing nothing, he reached inside with his slender hand, hoping to find some trace of clue concealed therein as though this were all some bizarre and torturous scavenger hunt. He smirked despite himself, having found nothing; things were never quite as simple as he hoped they'd be, but up till now that was what had made his life so worth living. Without his friends, however, he found such trials to be somewhat less invigorating.
"Well then," Yugi chirped, slipping the shoe back onto his foot. "It's good to have you back. Let's just hope I can find the others somewhere down the line, too. I bet they're waiting for me right now… and I can't exactly disappoint them, can I?"
Giving his toes a good wriggle, he clicked his heels together and carried on following the course of the river. There was nowhere else he could go.
Yugi awoke with a jolt. He had fallen asleep by the side of the river, having traveled for nigh on half a day; despite all this, however, the sun had refused to set or even shift its stalwart position in the sky. Time, it seemed, was at a standstill – as was everything else in this godforsaken place. The boughs of the trees were stiff, refusing to swing in the breeze; the clouds hung perpetually in the sky as if they were part of some painted backdrop; even the grass seemed unnaturally rigid. There was no wildlife to speak of, either; the lack of birdsong was proof enough of that.
The prevalent constant throughout his lonesome journey had been the sound of the river, which brashly buffeted his pride and determination every time he felt as though he had been making progress. In his head it had grown into a relentless roar, putting him in mind of Seto Kaiba's Blue-Eyes White Dragon. He half-expected to turn around and see the young billionaire standing on the opposite bank, his brow furrowed and his arms closed tightly across his chest in that ever condescending posture of his, scoffing at Yugi's predicament. He would call out across the stream, telling him to just give it up; it wasn't worth worrying about a bunch of losers – why not just stop right where he was and wait for somebody else to find him? It was a nice enough spot, and he was clearly tired of all this searching. He couldn't just go wandering about in the wilderness purely because his friends had left him there to rot.
"They didn't leave me here!" Yugi snapped, forgetting for a moment that he was on his own. His hands tightened into fists, clutching at the ends of his sleeves as he struggled with doubt. "I'm going to find them, Kaiba! You'll see!"
He got up, his chest heaving rapidly, and turned away from the stream; following it hadn't done him any good thus far, but he wasn't about to surrender to this seemingly insurmountable challenge. He would find another way out of this torment, and the only other option that he could see was to venture out into the forest and scale the highest hill he could find. Upon reaching the top, he would then survey his surroundings, hoping to catch a glimpse of the nearest town or, at the very least, figure out where he was in relation to the rest of the world. So he trudged onwards through the trees, the watery tumult behind him slowly dissipating until only the crunch of his footfalls could be heard. Relief washed over him; if he had been forced to listen to the river for much longer, he would have likely drowned himself in it just to salvage his sanity.
The ground beneath him gradually began to ascend, and Yugi could already feel hope rising in his gut for he knew that this meant he would be in for a change of scenery. He hadn't been this enthused since he'd stumbled upon his shoe. Perhaps somewhat naïvely, he began to wonder what was over the ridge up ahead. Would he see a beaten path marked by footprints and faded bicycle tracks? Would he see people walking through the woods on an outing – people who would hear his desperate pleas and take him to the nearest house, with a telephone and a bath and all the other amenities he'd previously taken for granted? Would he find his friends climbing up the other side of the hill in order to seek him out? Would they spot him first? Would they gasp and rush to meet him, their collective exhaustion all but forgotten? Would they cry tears of joy, as he was now just by picturing this? Would they really be waiting for him on the other side?
And will you be there with them? he wondered wistfully, his moist eyes falling to the Puzzle dangling from his neck. I hope so. I sure hope so.
At long last Yugi reached the top; he stood paralysed at the edge where the slope began. Now he could see it with his own two eyes; there was no beaten path – no strangers willing to lend him aid. His friends were not there. He wasn't there.
The only thing waiting for him was the stream.
"That's… not… possible!" Yugi yelled, furiously flinging his arms into the air.
Yet it was undeniably the case; the river had somehow looped around and cut him off at the pass, lying purposefully between him and the hills beyond. Yugi hurtled down the slope, his legs practically giving way beneath him as he slipped and skidded on the dry grass, and threw himself to the ground at the edge of the stream. He bit hard at the soil, as though he was trying to wound the very earth for betraying him so spitefully. The familiar sound of rushing water was the only response to his angered sobs; what had once been a cheerful, reassuring noise had become like a dreadful and contemptuous laughter burning at his ears and ripping away his stoicism. He had no means of escaping it.
Then, something dawned on him. Something about the curve of the river seemed familiar, as though he'd been here before. For the very first time since he'd found himself lost and alone amidst these never-ending woods, he had recognised something. This was a breakthrough comparable to his completion of the Millennium Puzzle! Hastily, he traced the outline of the stream in his head, hoping to determine just where he'd seen it before – but he hadn't the faintest idea. It looked like every other stretch of the river he'd walked alongside that day, right down to the dense outcropping of reeds on the opposite bank.
Wait a minute, he thought, abruptly. The reeds were on my side of the river before… He shook his head in disbelief; that didn't mean anything. After all, the reeds could've just as easily sprung up on the other side. But even so, something nagged at him subconsciously and insisted that things weren't quite what they seemed. Then, it dawned on him. Oh no! No, it can't be!
Inspiration took hold of him. He found a bare patch of earth, sufficient enough for his purposes, and stuck his finger deep into the ground until the dirt had risen up to his meet his knuckles. He dragged his digit through the yielding soil, sketching as best he could a triangular shape; he added the finishing touch in the form of an eye set deep into the centre of the image. He nodded, content with his representation of the Puzzle, and immediately scurried off up the hill, back in the direction he'd come from.
Please tell me I'm wrong, he begged as he made his way to the top. Tell me I'm imagining things. Tell me I'm crazy if you have to! Just don't tell me I'm right about this…
Soon enough, he was standing in the same spot where he had first decided to turn his back on the stream. Everything on the side nearest to him was as it had been, but on the opposite bank lay something that Yugi didn't recall seeing before. He could just make out a section of earth where someone had scrawled an awfully familiar shape – that of his Puzzle. It was identical to the one he had drawn, right down to the minor inconsistencies. There was no getting around it; he had been standing on the other side of the stream.
"No… I don't believe it," Yugi sank to the ground. "I can't!"
Not that he hadn't been expecting this; he just had no way of understanding it. Somehow, someway, he had been trapped inside a sort of ethereal maze whose walls were indivisible from the world around him. He'd solved plenty of mazes in his time; none of them were very difficult, just so long as you could see the exit. But right now, the exit was nowhere in sight. He didn't even know if there was one. This particular maze – if you could really call it that – seemed intent on leading him back to the same path, one that would keep him lost in its clutches for eternity. Were his friends also trapped here? And if so, would he find them if – by some miracle – he managed to get to the centre? Or would he just carry on into obscurity, separated from both time and memory?
Yugi knelt at the water's edge, staring into the ever-shifting surface of the stream. Like it or not, this was his anchor; as the spirit had been before, now the stream was to be Yugi's partner. Wherever he would go within this world, it would be there beside him – for there was simply no escaping it. He leaned forward, hoping to see his reflection as that would at least offer the illusion of company; he could talk to it, even delude himself into thinking that he was addressing the spirit of the Puzzle, and hide from isolation behind a thinly veiled wall of pretense. Right now, it was the closest thing he had to a friend.
But his reflection failed to return his gaze.
It wasn't even there.
The harder he looked, however, the less alone he felt; for coursing through the current, he could see pallid shapes weaving their way downstream. Shadowed entities that seemed to have a life of their own, and the more he watched them the closer they resembled faces – human faces, with eyes that smiled rapturously and mouths wide with unending peals of silent laughter. Yugi watched them fluttering about beneath the water, sometimes rising so close to the surface that he thought one might emerge and usher him down to join them. He should have been afraid. Scratch that, he should have been terrified of them. But he wasn't. Perhaps it was the sheer pressure of loneliness that had driven him to appreciate these ghostly masks, which bobbed and dove like graceful, colourless fish, but he knew somehow that they were good. Something in his heart told him he had no reason to fear them – and with that knowledge tucked safely away inside his conscience, he extended an arm out to try and touch one of them.
"YUGI!" a voice suddenly bellowed. "Don't!"
Yugi froze. It wasn't the urgency of the command that had stopped him, nor was it the fact that it had used his name. He knew to whom that regal, passionate voice belonged. It was him. "Spirit!" He rose, and turned in the direction from which the voice had struck his senses.
Standing not ten feet away, the spirit was regarding him intensely. He looked different, despite being clad in the very same attire that Yugi was accustomed to, as though he had been fundamentally – yet imperceptibly – changed. Regardless, he was still the same old spirit, and Yugi was overcome with emotion upon seeing him; he rushed forward and wrapped his arms around the apparition's waist, wishing that he might never be forced to let go. He didn't want to lose his friend twice in one day; their bond may have been broken somehow, but their friendship was alive and well inside their hearts. He could feel it in the warmth that spread outward from the spirit's body as they embraced – their bond was gone, but their love remained.
Yugi blinked, his fingers slowly retracting from his friend's figure. He pulled away and stared up at his partner, his eyes widening in disbelief. Something unbelievable had happened, something that couldn't be explained away with a simple maze analogy. He had been touching the spirit – as though he was flesh and blood!
"What's happened to you?" Yugi asked, shaking his head in awe. "Are you… for real?"
"Yes, Yugi," the spirit nodded solemnly. "I am real. I am here with you."
"But…" Yugi made confused gestures at his friend's body. "I can feel you. I can… I can touch you? Why? Tell me…!"
It wasn't meant to happen this way. He had dreamed many times over in the past that he might one day be able to physically interact with the spirit, as he could with his other friends. When they'd inhabited the same body, that had proven impossible; even when the spirit would project his body as a phantasm of sorts, which only Yugi himself could perceive, they could only feign interplay. Yugi wanted to be ecstatic, to be thrilled by his partner's newfound corporeal nature – but he was too afraid of what it could mean.
It was then that he noticed the telltale traces of tears upon the spirit's typically stalwart cheeks.
He had been crying.
"Spirit!" Yugi grabbed his partner's arms and shook them urgently. "You have to tell me what's happened! There's so much I don't understand… Where are we? Why aren't you inside the Puzzle? Where are Joey, and Téa, and Tristan, and all the others? What's happening, spirit? Please!"
"Yugi…" was all the spirit could say in response.
"And why can I touch you all of a sudden?" Yugi buried his head into the spirit's chest, frightened by it but at the same time oh so thankful. "Why here, why now?"
"Yugi," the spirit replied. "I cannot tell you. I cannot bring myself to explain…"
Yugi recoiled. "Then you're not real after all!"
"What? No, Yugi, I…"
"The real spirit of the Puzzle would sense how I'm feeling," Yugi's voice wavered as he fought against his own frailty to deliver the words that now burned within him. "Even without the Puzzle to bind us together, he would know; I'm sure of it. He would see that I was hurting, and he would do everything in his power to stop it!"
"I swear I will do anything to prevent you from suffering," the spirit placed a hand on Yugi's shoulder. "We are partners; I am your protector, Yugi."
"But how can I trust you if you won't even tell me what's going on?" Yugi demanded.
"It is for your own safety," the spirit explained.
"I don't believe you!" Yugi took a step back. "Nothing in this place is what it seems to be; I bet you're no different!"
"Yugi!" shouted the spirit, his eyes flaring with an unmistakable concern. "Do not turn away from me. I came here so you wouldn't be alone anymore."
"Where were you before, then?" Yugi sniffled, lowering his eyes and reflecting on his brief yet arduous experience in this otherworldly place. "Did you even know I was here? Do the others know I'm here? I need to know!"
The spirit frowned, his brow fracturing into a thousand sorrowful creases. "Then you really don't remember any of it."
"Any of what?" Yugi growled impatiently, wanting to scream at the top of his lungs. "Tell me what happened! Prove to me that you're still my partner, in spite of whatever may have separated us!"
The spirit nodded respectfully. "Very well. I will tell you whatever it is you wish to know." He paused. "But I cannot promise you'll like it."
"I'd like being kept in the dark even less," Yugi replied. "You of all people should appreciate that."
"Yugi," the spirit said, softly. His hand trembled in place on Yugi's shoulder, and Yugi could feel him striving to maintain his composure. Had his words moved him that much? Or was something else affecting him? Something to do with this place, perhaps? "Where shall I begin?"
"You can start by telling me just who brought me here," Yugi nodded, giving his partner an affirming smile. "That way I'll know who I'm up against."
"Up against?" the spirit asked.
"Yeah," said Yugi. "We're gonna fight our way out of here, right? And we'll do it together, just like old times. And at the end of it all, we'll find Joey, and Téa, and Tristan, and…"
"Yugi," the spirit spoke. "You brought yourself here."
Yugi was aghast. "What? I did? But, why would…?"
"Perhaps it would be best if I started from the beginning," the spirit suggested, before taking on a more melancholy tone. "For I saw the whole thing take place from within the Puzzle – from within you, Yugi."
"All right," Yugi agreed, nervously. "But I think I should probably sit down first." And so they sat together in the shade of a tree, Yugi listening intently as the spirit reluctantly narrated the events that had led them to this point.
"It started," the spirit swallowed, as though the tale had become stuck in his throat, "with a duel."
"Heh," Yugi ventured a chuckle. "That's usually how all our stories end."
"Yes," the spirit replied – his voice distant and reflective. "Yes, it is."
TO BE CONTINUED